Why Should Christians Study History?

28 08 2013

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a pretty significant bias towards the humanities.  I’ve heard it said that scientists can tell us how to clone dinosaurs, but an English major can tell you why you shouldn’t.  At least in that scenario, the humanities seem more useful.  All that to say, I’m biased and that bias will be reflected in this post, so do adjust accordingly.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, simply four reasons off the top of my head for why Christians should engage in the study of history.  They are as follows:

  1. History keeps Christians from being naive
  2. History helps Christians avoid ancient errors
  3. History helps us solve modern problems
  4. History helps us appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit

I’ll talk through each one briefly in the following paragraphs.

History keeps Christians from being naive:

If you’ve been around Christians for more than five minutes one of the things you’re bound to hear is “I’m just a Christian.”  That little statement can be juxtaposed with other Christians who might say “I’m a Presbyterian,” or “I’m a Roman Catholic.”  Perhaps more broadly someone might say, “I’m a Reformed Christian,” or “I’m an Arminian Christian.” Now we can say two things from here.  First, I would suggest when speaking with non-Christians it is preferable to simply say “I’m a Christian” without getting into all the confusing details of denominationalism.  Second, I can also see the reason why someone might want to eschew a denominational or confessional label.  After all, the fact that we must meet in separate buildings, with separate names and distinct theologies is a sad thing.  With the hymnist we can say “Bid Thou our sad divisions cease/ And be Thyself our King of Peace!.”

This longing for unity and disdain for division can compel us to say, “to heck with it!  I’m just a Christian.”  While I understand the sentiment, I would also say that the statement is incredibly naive and at the end of the day unhelpful.  No one is just a Christian.  We all have distinct views on some of Christianity’s biggest questions, questions such as:  What is the Bible?  How are we saved?  What is a Church?  Now here’s the kicker.  Because you have opinions on these questions you’re not simply a Christian.  Your opinions will place you firmly within a historic Christian tradition whether you like it or not.  The problem is, if you don’t read Christian history you won’t even know that’s what you’re doing.  You’ll be frustrated when you talk to people who are aware of their Christian tradition because they can’t just be “simply Christian,” like you are.  But the problem is, you’re not simply Christian.  You just don’t know enough to know better.

History helps Christians avoid ancient errors:

Why could Jesus heal the sick?  It’s because he was God right?  And God can do things that we can’t do, so that’s why Jesus could heal the sick.  Well, not so fast.  The above comes dangerously close to an ancient Christian heresy called Docetism, which said that Jesus only appeared to be a man but he was truly and purely God.  Here’s the problem with Docetism:  if Jesus only appeared to be a man then God has no experience of human weakness and human frailty.  But one of the chief comforts of the Gospel is that God became man, the Word became flesh.  Jesus was fully God and fully man.  Of the many significant things that this implies, one thing is that when we sin God understands the trials we were under because, having taken on flesh, God the Son was under the very same trials yet remained without sin.  Therefore he has sympathy with us in our sin and weakness (Hebrews 4.15).  Docetism denies the Christian the comfort that God sympathizes with his people, even in their sin.

The ancient church spent a lot of time defining orthodoxy (right belief) over and against heresy (wrong belief).  While this may seem like nitpicking over doctrine so that we can “get it right,” as the above example illustrates heresy is a cruel thing.  It was Bishop Fitz Allison who went to great pains to point this out in his book The Cruelty of Heresy (Buy it here).  Reading Christian history helps us learn and identify the heresies of the past so that we won’t visit the cruelty of heresy on ourselves or on others.

History helps us solve modern problems

C.S. Lewis said this better than I will be able to, so I’ll simply quote him in full.  I’ve emboldened the especially relevant points:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator….

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology….

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

History helps us appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit has been at work in the lives of God’s people for 2000 years (and even before that!), not just at Pentecost and last Sunday when your favorite worship song was played.  It’s good for Christians to read about the work of the Holy Spirit in previous generations, how he led the church in truth, how he sanctified the saints, how he strengthened them to endure death, how he emboldened them to preach the Gospel, how he caused them to take up the cause of the poor and the oppressed.  One of the chief benefits for me in reading the lives of Christian saints from the past is to see the ways that the Holy Spirit powerfully worked upon them, that I might ask the Holy Spirit to do the same for me.

All that to say, History is important for Christians.  If you’re an Anglican, or just happen to be a product of the Reformation (if you’re reading the Bible in your mother tongue, you’re a product of the Reformation) there is a wonderful opportunity coming up this fall that you can read about here.  I’m afraid the link does make this little post a bit of shameless self-promotion, but I also hope it will be more than that.  Do read history Christians!  It will do you some good.

If you want a good place to start, how about:

Biographies

Eric Metaxas Dietrich Bonhoeffer

G Marsden Jonathan Edwards

J.C. Ryle Light From Old Times (several short biographies of English Reformers)

Bruce Gordon John Calvin

Peter Toon God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen

John Bunyan Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography)

Histories

P. Benedict: Christ’s Church Purely Reformed

D. MacCulloch:  The Reformation

J Pelikan’s five volume History and Development of Doctrine (a personal favorite, but no easy read)

The First Christian Theologians edt. by Evans


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